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The Politics of Global Abortion Rights

Sexual Health
Joanna N. Erdman

In the early 1970s, the first constitutional cases on abortion law in the United States and Western Europe emerged from the political agitations of a transna- tional women’s liberation movement. Whether or not these cases supported or resisted a woman’s right to decide, they all engaged with abortion as an object of political struggle over the terms and future of women’s citizenship. Women’s movements advanced abortion rights through constitutional law in an effort to radically restructure the social and economic order.

The same was not true of abortion in international human rights law, which has been avowedly anti-political. The earliest cases in the European human rights system—men challenging newly liberalized laws for their effect on the “future of the nation”—were declared inadmissible precisely because they engaged the political stakes of abortion law. To this day, the European Court of Human Rights refuses to engage in the abstract review of abortion laws and has never stated whether the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees a right to abortion. At best, the Court admits that the regulation of abortion—and more broadly, the decision to become a parent or not—may engage an individual woman’s right to “respect for [her] private and family life.” This right variably protects a woman’s physical and mental integrity, as well as her personal autonomy and development. To the extent recognized under the European Convention, abortion rights are decidedly a matter of private—not public—life.